The NFC South is easily argued as the toughest division in all of the NFL. Last year the division sent 3 of its teams to the playoffs, an occurrence only happening two other times in the conference since the division shift in 2002. This year could be the same with 2 of the teams being heavily favored to play in the Super Bowl. It is a division highlighted for great quarterback play, boasting three future hall of famers, two former league MVPs, one Super Bowl MVP, and a gifted player whose talent equals his off field troubles.
Season 2017 was full of surprises. Not many expected the Saints to win the division and both Rookie of the Year awards. However, last year is over now and it is time for a new season, which holds new surprises. A time when the fans’ optimism is high and their dreams are bigger. A time when every team has the same record and same chance to win the division crown. A time when predictions are made with the explanations of why they are right. Since that time is here, we are going to take a look at the teams in the NFC South and predict how their season will go.
The Atlanta Falcons started their season off last year with high hopes of making a return trip to the Super Bowl. However, they fell short by a couple of yards in the Divisional playoff round against Philadelphia. The Atlanta offense enters this season hopeful that a second year under offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian, will be more productive for Matt Ryan and Co. Ryan had a down year last year compared to his MVP season the year before, watching his stats fall off drastically. The Falcons drafted wide receiver Calvin Ridley to compliment Julio Jones, and have hopes of adding another spark to their explosive offense. Their offense is loaded at the skill positions with great depth. The team has not looked very good in the pre season, with the offense showing no life or rhythm and only scoring 26 points in all 4 games. However, on paper everything looks great for the team and it’s hard to find a weakness on the offensive side of the ball. The defense is a very young and talented group led by pro bowler, Dion Jones. The unit lost some key starters on the line and is looking to the first round pick from last year, Takkarist McKinnley, to step up and produce big numbers for them. They also hope Vic Beasley will have a bounce back year after only producing 5.5 sacks last year. Overall, the group is solid, but it seems unlikely that they will finish in the top 10 again this year without a good pass rush. The Falcons have made the playoffs the past 2 years and to make it again this year, they’ll be doing something they’ve only accomplished once before. The team looks ready to continue their success and push for the division title.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
Tampa Bay started last season as the hot team on the rise but finished last in the division, a place they have grown all too familiar with. This season there is no hype surrounding Tampa because there is not very much to get excited for, except maybe a mid season coaching change. Head coach Dick Koetter miraculously kept his job this season. But unless he can perform a miracle by making it to the playoffs, it will most likely be his last. Finding a way to the playoffs has not been an easy task for the Bucs, considering it has been over a decade since their last post season appearance. One of the many challenges facing the Bucs this season is the suspension of quarterback Jameis Winston for the first 3 games, which all happen to be against playoff teams. The Bucs offense was not bad last year. They finished in the top 10, but to continue in success they will need several players to step up and contribute. Ronald Jones was drafted to sure things up in the backfield, but has landed third on the depth chart due to poor play in pre season and training camp. Consequently, Peyton Barber is the lead back for now, who played well at the end of last season. Wide receiver Chris Goodwin has been one of the few bright spots on the team. Goodwin’s speed, agility, and hand work has shown quite impressive, while pushing an under performing Desean Jackson down for playing time. On the other side of the football, the defensive unit finished last in the league last year. The team added Jason Pierre Paul and Vinny Curry in the offseason to try to help boost a pedestrian pass rush. There is hope of improvement with pairing promising draft pick Vita Via to compliment Gerald McCoy, who is the only solid player on defense. This team is a few players short and a far way off from being competitive this year and the next.
With Super Cam and Riverboat Ron heading this team up, the Panthers always have a chance. The Panthers were a solid unit last year, making it to the wildcard round of the playoffs and losing to the Saints for the third time in the season. The offensive unit finished nineteenth in the league last season and will look to newly hired Offensive Coordinator, Norv Turner, to help improve the unit this year. One of Turner’s goal is to improve the accuracy of his quarterback and get his completion percentage above the 60 percentile. Christian McCaffery found so much favor with the team last year, they let go of all time rushing leader, Johnathan Stewart, to increase McCaffery’s role in the offense. The offense’s biggest concern is their receiving corps. Their best one is the aging tight end Greg Olsen, and he spent a lot of last season on injured reserve. But when the ball is in Cam’s hands, anything is always possible. The defense is a stellar group and fields the best front 7 in the division. The team will be without linebacker Thomas Davis for the first 4 games as he serves his suspension. O.J Mayo will take his place in that time as a quality starting player. The Achilles heel for this unit is the secondary, as they never found someone to take the place of Josh Norman after he left. With an aging defense, a shaky offensive line, and a new offensive coordinator, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see this team take a step back and possibly miss the playoffs in a stacked NFC.
New Orleans Saints:
After a heart breaking last second loss to Minnesota in the divisional round of the playoffs, the defending NFC south champs look to build off of last year’s success. A second year for the NFL’s youngest team should show lots of improvement, with all the starting team returning except 1 player. The offense did what they always do last year and finished second. There is no reason to think why there would be a fall off this year. The biggest obstacle the offense has, is the loss of running back Mark Ingram for 4 games. After making several questionable cuts, the Saints seemed to have settled on Mike Gillissee as Alvin Kamara’s running mate in Ingram’s absence. The Saints have an embarrassment of riches on offense; with Mike Thomas out to make his name as a top receiver in the game, with the best offensive line in the league, the rookie of the year in the backfield, and one of the greatest players of all time playing quarter back. The defense, led by All-World defensive end Cameron Jordan, looks ready to make the next step and rival the offense as an elite unit. The defensive line does not get enough credit for how good they are, and the addition of draft pick Marcus Davenport will only make them better. The secondary has defensive rookie of the year Marshon Latimore leading the group and safety Marcus Williams ready to play at an all pro level. The Saints added Demario Davis at linebacker to help improve the tackling and run game. The linebacker group certainly is more athletic this year. Sean Payton has this group focused and ready to take Brees on one last super bowl run, and with the current roster it’s quite possible. This team is deep and loaded with depth at every position, even at the backup quarterback position since acquiring Teddy Bridgewater from the Jets. It’s important the Saints get out to a fast start and finish strong in an ultra competitive NFC conference, where it may take 13 wins to get playoff home field advantage. Barring injury, the Saints should win the NFC south again this year and be one of the top teams in the league.